By Russell Moore
Wallace State Communications
Wallace State has definitely made a splash in Major League Baseball, having four different players make their big-league debuts in four consecutive years (2009-2012).
Last Saturday night in Houston, two former Lion teammates, Texas Rangers starter Derek Holland and Houston Astros infielder Jake Elmore, faced each other for the first time in their careers, marking yet another unique feat for coach Randy Putman’s program. Both Holland and Elmore were integral pieces to the 2006 Wallace State baseball team that advanced to the NJCAA World Series, which remains the last Lion squad to advance to Grand Junction, Colo.
Holland and Elmore had somewhat of a reunion the night before they opposed each other. Elmore dropped by the Rangers’ hotel to pick up Holland on their way to Minute Maid Park for the series-opener, and, among other things, they reminisced about their Wallace State days.
It was all business, though, when it was Holland’s turn to take the mound in the second game of the series.
“It was definitely an interesting night. We joked about it the day before. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, and then to see Jake in the box and match up against him was neat,” said Holland in a phone interview earlier this week. “It was hard not to think about how impressive it was to have two guys from a junior college in Alabama facing off in the big leagues. Jake has worked his tail off to get where he is like we all have. I was just making sure I didn’t give up a hit to him.”
Elmore went hitless in two at-bats against his former teammate, popping up twice.
“Derek got two fastballs in on me in both at-bats. I worked a 3-1 count on him in one at-bat. I thought he was coming in with the next pitch, and I guessed right, but he put it right on the corner, where I couldn’t turn on it enough. I had to swing at it because it was what I was looking for,” Elmore said. “It was a fun experience. We talked a lot of trash to each other the day before. I guess Derek won this round. It was just a fun experience to step in the box against someone you shared the same jersey with in college even though it was years ago.”
The Rangers won the game 5-4 with Holland earning a no-decision after striking out six and allowing three runs in six innings. The first-place Rangers ultimately swept the four-game set.
Holland was the first former Lion to make his MLB debut during the recent surge, earning the promotion in April 2009. Still only 26 years old, the southpaw has pitched in two World Series (2010, 2011), helped the Rangers win two American League pennants (2010, 2011) and is one of the team’s premier and reliable pitchers. Holland entered Friday’s start versus Seattle with a 9-6 record and 3.07 ERA, which is ninth-best in the American League. Holland has compiled a 48-35 record in 114 career starts and is 3-0 during 13 postseason appearances.
“I’ve been blessed to do some things people can only dream about, but winning Game 4 of the (2011) World Series was an unbelievable feeling for me. I was fortunate enough to pitch one of my best games on the biggest stage in baseball,” said Holland, an Ohio native. “Another memorable start was a shutout I threw in Cleveland in 2011. It was special because most of my family got to come, and it was the first time my grandmother was able to see me live.”
Holland pitched at Wallace State during the 2006 and 2007 seasons. He was 8-2 with a 2.69 ERA and struck out 80 batters in 77 innings as a freshman in 2006, propelling the Lions to the World Series. The lefty followed it with a 9-2 record and 1.82 ERA in 13 starts as a sophomore, recording 84 strikeouts and issuing only 11 walks in 74.1 innings.
Holland was drafted by the Rangers in the 25th-round of the 2006 draft. At the time, Holland had the draft-and-follow option at his disposal, leaving him the choice to accept the Rangers’ offer or transfer to Arizona State before the following draft in 2007. He elected to join the Rangers’ system following his sophomore season at Wallace State and bypassed Arizona State.
Elmore also carved out quite a career at Wallace State, spanning the 2006-07 seasons. He hit .407 with three homers, 48 RBIs and 22 steals as a freshman. At the World Series, Elmore earned the “Big Stick” award for hitting .526 during tournament play as the Lions finished fourth nationally. He was named the ACCC/Region 22 Tournament MVP the same season.
As a sophomore, Elmore hit .450 with four homers, 45 RBIs, 26 steals and 20 doubles and completed his Wallace State career as a .428 hitter with 93 RBIs and 111 runs scored.
Elmore transferred to Arizona State after his Wallace State career and played one year for the Sun Devils before he was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 34th round of the 2008 draft.
Elmore squared off against Holland a day before he celebrated the one-year anniversary of his major-league debut with the Diamondbacks. After spending his entire professional career with Arizona, Elmore was released by the club last November, but was quickly scooped up by the Houston Astros. He has a pair of homers, four doubles and six RBIs in 97 at-bats this season for the Astros.
“It was kind of a surreal moment when I was informed the Diamondbacks didn’t want me anymore. It was definitely a shock,” said Elmore, also 26. “The Astros were the first team in the waiver wire pecking order, and they took me. As disheartening as it was to be let go by the Diamondbacks, it was as uplifting that the Astros thought enough of me to pick me up right way. That experience helps me stay motivated every day.”
As far as the debuts of former Wallace State players go, sandwiched in between Holland and Elmore were Craig Kimbrel’s in 2010 and Graham Godfrey’s in 2011. With exception of the legendary Mariano Rivera, Kimbrel is considered the most dominant closer in the game, racking up 127 saves in less than four full seasons for the Atlanta Braves. Godfrey made his debut with the Oakland Athletics and has since pitched for the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates organizations. He is currently pitching for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians.
Holland and Elmore both agree it’s a special bond and a rewarding feeling to be representing Wallace State in the major leagues, especially since the odds of such great talent coming from a junior college at one time aren’t generally too high.
“You always hear guys in the major leagues say they played with certain people in high school or college. I’m proud to say I played at Wallace State with Jake Elmore and Craig Kimbrel. That’s about as cool as it gets. It’s an awesome feat. I got to play with Craig Kimbrel for Team USA during the World Baseball Classic and get to see Jake Elmore when we play the Astros. That’s some good company,” Holland said. “I owe a lot of credit to coach Putman for getting me mentally and physically prepared to play in the big leagues. My Wallace State years were a big turning point in my career to get where I’m at now. I’m also grateful for coach (Chuck) Davis and for the things he taught me about pitching.”
Added Elmore: “Wallace State is a place you hold dear to your heart. It’s definitely something special to have so many guys make it to this level from one college, especially since there are three of us who all played together. We all have a lot of love for Wallace State. People are interested and surprised when I tell them I played college baseball with Derek Holland and Craig Kimbrel. Some can’t believe that much talent could come from one junior college.”